We revisit the time Frédéric Tcheng took us behind the seams at the Dior atelier, in the run-up to Raf Simons’ debut haute couture showcase.
Taken from the Summer Fashion Issue of Wonderland
One new creative director, a staff of 5,200, a 54-piece debut haute couture collection, and 270 hours of raw footage – an intense creative endeavour captured in one emotional, powerful 89-minute documentary. Out internationally, Frédéric Tcheng’s Dior and I is a work of art. Having co-directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel and co-edited and co-produced Valentino: The Last Emperor, Tcheng is no first-time documentarian. His handling of Dior’s recent transitional phase – following John Galliano’s anti-Semitic outburst and subsequent dismissal from the fashion house – is testament to that.
It was in Paris during a presentation of The Eye Has To Travel in 2011 that Tcheng first met Olivier Bialobos, the Head of Communications at Dior. “Dior were looking for a new designer,” Tcheng tells Wonderland. “That’s when we first started discussing the idea of making a film and Olivier said we could open the doors of Dior for the first time.”
A year later, Tcheng was introduced to Galliano’s replacement, Raf Simons. “The scene in the movie where [Raf] comes in, that’s the moment that I met him,” the director recalls. “No prior meeting, I saw him on camera for the first time. That was very different from any documentary I’d done before. Everything happened so fast.” It took some convincing to get Simons to agree to cameras being there at all. “He was pretty reluctant to be on camera! He quizzed me about my favourite films and told me his reasons for being reluctant were to do with privacy and the celebrity culture that surrounds fashion. He’s not attracted to that and I’m not either. That’s where we connected.”
Born in Lyon to science-loving parents, Tcheng self-educated on all things film. Growing up on a diet of David Fincher, Todd Haynes and a host of other auteurs, the director took a left turn from his degree in engineering at 24, enrolling on a film studies course.
Weirdly mirroring this, Simons hasn’t always been immersed in fashion either. The son of an army night watchman and a cleaner, the designer grew up in Belgium and studied industrial furniture design, a field he pursued professionally until an internship with Walter Van Beirendonck saw him trade furnishings for fashion. It was in 1995 that Simons started his eponymous label. Pillaging references from both rebellious youth cultures and traditional menswear codes for his “Summa Cum Laude” collection in 2000, he riffed on everything from Manic Street Preachers album artwork – re-appropriated as patches smattered on skinny-cut suits – to the dress codes of gabba, the noisy, pummelling techno subgenre.
Ten years on, in 2005, Simons was named Creative Director of Jil Sander, where he made his debut foray into womenswear. Often mislabelled as a minimalist, he’s one of the few designers who has kept his private life under wraps, remaining something of a fashion rebel despite his heightened status. The outsider taking the reigns at one of fashion’s most prestigious institutions: it’s easy to see why the fashion milieu so eagerly awaited Simons’ first collection for Dior. For his couture line, Simons employed a midcentury technique – imprimé Chaîne – and prints mirrored those of American artist Sterling Ruby, Simons’ long-time muse. Always pushing against the grain, one scene in Dior and I shows him ordering his cobbler to bin the skyscraper heels a model is wearing during a fitting, telling him he “hates thefeeling of a guy supporting [a girl] on a staircase”.
The first step in building the Tcheng-Simons bond was trust. “After week one, the process was very hands off with Raf,” says Tcheng. “He knows how to give creative room to the people that he works with.” But how much of the real Simons do we see on camera? One day during filming, Simons approached Tcheng with a simple request. “He said: ‘Fred, please don’t make me into a caricature,because I often see that in documentaries, especially fashion documentaries, people latch onto one aspect of someone’s personality then blow it up, and that makes for a caricature, a one-dimensional portrait. I know that’s what audiences like in many ways, but it’s not fair.’ I really took that to heart, to make him a three-dimensional character.”
That’s exactly what Simons is: three-dimensional, honest and real. He may want to shy away from the lens, but Tcheng gets under his skin. Interrupting scenes with archive footage of Christian Dior and voiced excerpts of his 1956 autobiography spoken by Tcheng’s friend, writer and poet Omar Berrada, Tcheng examines the parallels between Simons’ and Dior’s working practices. Similarities arise in how they question their role in society, too. “It’s almost the feeling of a split personality when you become part of the public arena. That was part of Dior’s experience and Raf’s experience as well,” explains Tcheng. “Dior wanted to be an architect and Raf is an industrial designer, so they have that in common too. And art. You know, Christian Dior ran a gallery and Raf is very inspired by art so there are many, many things that unite their personalities.”
Of course, Simons is fully aware of his similarities to Dior. In one particularly striking scene just before his debut show in Paris, he sheds a tear – a glowing hint to the fact that, like Dior’s rise from designer to deity, everything’s about to change for him. It’s these painstakingly intimate moments that make the film relatable for not only the fashion elite, but those who aren’t in the know. Despite his glamorous repertoire of documentaries, Tcheng is a filmmaker, not a fashion insider. “It’s always the case when you make a documentary,” he comments. “You always try to reach an audience that’s not just a fashion audience, because it’s too limiting. That’s not who I am.”
The night before the showcase, his devoted team is gathered at the atelier slaving away over a final dress. Each working on a different piece, the collaborative aspect of fashion is expressed in one beautiful moment. Eight weeks of hard work reach a crescendo when Simons’ debut Dior Haute Couture collection is presented in a Parisian mansion. The models walk through five sensory chambers – rooms wallpapered floor-to-ceiling with fresh peonies, dahlias, carnations, orchids and roses. At the time, Simons referred to his masterpiece show space as “Jeff Koons’ Flower Puppy inside out”.
When the models appear in Sterling Ruby-printed prom dresses, re-invented ball gowns worn with cigarette pants and tuxedo silhouettes born from the Dior archives, the space is audibly buzzing with energy. The fashion elite are digesting Simons’ new language of Dior. Fighting back tears, Simons steps onto the catwalk and out from the shadow of Christian Dior.
Months later, Tcheng’s final edit was complete and Simons took a DVD home to watch Dior and I by himself. A moving text message to Tcheng followed, expressing his love for the film. “That was the best response I could hope for,” says the director. “He was genuinely moved by the film.”
Dior and I, in selected UK cinemas: www.diormovie.com
Words: Brooke McCord